TOKYO - The government took the extraordinary step of summoning the Chinese ambassador to the Foreign Ministry at around 2 a.m. Thursday to lodge a strong protest against the unprecedented entry of a Chinese Navy vessel into the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua was summoned about one hour after the vessel entered the contiguous zone outside Japanese territorial waters, to hear a demand that Beijing exercise self-restraint.
"This is the first time I have summoned someone in the middle of the night, but I believe that shows the seriousness of this situation," Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki said to the ambassador. "I want you to be aware of this point." The government was concerned that the Chinese warship's entry into the waters could lead to an accidental collision.
Cheng reportedly told Saiki that China "does not want the situation to escalate" and that he would convey Saiki's message to Beijing.
The Chinese Navy vessel had been warned by a Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) destroyer before it entered the contiguous zone, but it pulled away and moved into the zone.
According to a senior Foreign Ministry official, the Chinese ship then made movements that indicated "it might advance into Japan's territorial waters."
If a Chinese Navy vessel were to intrude into territorial waters, the government has decided it would order maritime security operations in which it would dispatch MSDF vessels.
Given the possibility that the Chinese ship could have entered territorial waters during Thursday's incident, the government went on a heightened state of alert that included providing instant updates to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and sharing information with the United States. The Chinese vessel eventually left the contiguous zone after about two hours.
China has sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, where it is continuing its assertive maritime advances such as the construction of man-made islands. Yoji Koda, a former commander in chief of the MSDF fleet, said, "China intended to divert international attention from the South China Sea."
Three Russian Navy vessels also sailed into the contiguous zone before the Chinese warship entered the area. "China used Russia very well so as not to generate excessive tension," Koda said.